There’s bird-photography and then there is bird-photography! Which group do you prefer? How can a simple activity like bird photography be not ethical? What is it that should be avoided in bird-photography?
(Russet Sparrow on a blossoming wild apricot tree. 1/1000 sec at f/11 using Sigma 150-500mm lens on a Nikon body. ISO was set to 500)
Sitting at home, I have been trying to catch up with many old friends and contacts. Thankfully, the phones are still working. Today I had a very nice and long discussion with an old friend. He is a nature lover and a professional photographer who frequently takes up wildlife photography assignments too. It was a very nice discussion. While talking about various things we came down to discussing the present scenario of Bird-Photography. For me, that is still a genre where I don’t usually tread into. The discussion was quite enlightening. There are two ways to do bird photography. One is ethical and the other is what the world does. Read on and decide for yourself how you want to go about it.
What does ethical bird photography mean?
In simple words, ethical bird photography is doing it in a manner that the birds are not harmed in any way. None of the photographers tries to harm any birds, not as far as I know. It is, however, the ignorance of fine rules that exist in nature. There is a balance that is very fragile. Just a little disturbance of that balance and the effects can be catastrophic.
Most bird photographers are careful enough to not disturb the birds usually. Thankfully, most of them care about nature too. I have seen each and every bird photographer uphold the famous words – ‘don’t leave anything behind except footprints and don’t take anything away except memories (or photographs)’.
In this article, I’ll write about things that usually seem harmless but in actual end up causing a lot of damage to birds and the ecosystem in general.
Bird-Feeders or Feeding Stations
Feeding birds is a good deed, right? What harm can it cause? Seeds are kept in the feeding station. Birds come and enjoy the meals and photographers can capture nice photographs. The chirping birds sound nice too. However, this is not so nice a scene.
The biggest problem that happens with most such feeders or feeding stations is that the seeds or specialized bird feed are left there for many days. Quite frequently, it gets spoilt! Infested with fungus and bacteria! That’s what goes into these little creatures and some of them become sick, to an extent that they die. People setting up bird-feeders don’t notice this. Why? It’s very hard to recognize birds apart. Imagine a group of a dozen sparrows visiting your feeder turn by turn. Will you be able to recognize all of them apart? Even if a few of them disappear, the remaining will keep visiting and everything will appear fine. And, when I say bird feeders, I also mean all the ways by which humans try to help birds by feeding them. This can be in form of food left on plates or hidden away in tree trunks for them to find.
What if the owner keeps changing the seeds frequently and keeps the feeder clean? Still, it is not a good thing to do. There is a theory that says that the feeders change the way birds feed. This is an easy way out for the birds and so their diet changes, their way of foraging for food changes and the way they feed their young ones, also changes! They become dependent on the person feeding them. Apart from that, the birds also suffer due to change in their diet. Some develop nutritional deficiencies and reduced immunity too. These birds die down earlier than the birds that continue to search and feed themselves on their own.
Feeding the birds can also have the opposite effect. A particular species of birds may become strong due to regular and easy-to-find food. They may become dominant and as a result, the balance of natural populations gets disturbed. This can have some long-term serious effects on the ecosystem.
There is a counterargument to this. Over the last many years, humans have anyway changed the natural habitats to a large extent, and maybe the birds do need some support from humans to survive.
If you live anywhere near a forest, farm, park, or anything similar; please avoid setting up feeders. If you still do so out of empathy, take care of them and provide a mix of food so that you cater for a large variety of birds and not just one species’ population. Preferably, set up feeders, only if you live in an over-crowded city with no parks and also if you vow to change the food daily!
(Yellow-vented Himalayan Bulbuls in the wild, photographed just outside a dense woodlands area)
Water-Baths for Birds
Birds love a refreshing bath in cool water on a hot summer day. Water baths are nice. Birds also get thirsty like us and need water for their survival. However, these too can be a source of infection if the water is not changed frequently.
Inviting birds using water is a safer way than providing food. It does not cause as much as problem as do feeders. In fact, some freshwater can be useful for them during summers or extreme winters when water is all frozen over.
So, you see, I am not totally against water baths or water provided for drinking to the birds, but this should be done in crowded cities where natural sources are no longer there or at times when water is not easily available. If you live anywhere where there are woodlands, forests, farmlands, or anything similar, there’s no need to leave water out for birds. Though if you still want to attract them, go ahead but keep the water fresh. Change it daily (and sometimes multiple times in a day if it gets dirty).
(Grey-winged Blackbird. This one was hiding behind a tree. Though it was partially hidden, still photographing it was fun. … and no, going towards the right or forward would have disturbed this easily scared bird.)
Studio Set-Ups for Bird-Photography
These are a new generation of photography destinations that have been built to attract photographers interested in birds.
The usual combination consists of a ‘hide’, some ‘perches’, ‘feeding stations’, and water sources.
Hides have been there for a long time. These are tents, wooden houses, camouflaged hide-outs, or any place where a photographer can hide. Nothing wrong with these. In fact, I like the concept of hides. These don’t scare the birds and so good for them. The problem is with the perches and feeding stations. Sometimes with the water too!
What these studio set-ups do is try to mimic natural habitat (basically all green background and some wooden perches) with easy to capture birds, which are attracted to the place by feed.
The perches are made out of old tree trunks or branches. The birds can sit comfortably there. Most of these perches have hidden feeding solutions too inside. The photographer can easily photograph the bird which gets attracted to the feed, while it sits on the perch. No obstructing branches, no extra leaves, close by, and great blurred background! The feed is obviously a problem for the reasons stated above. However, there is yet another problem. Small birds get noticed by the predators high up in the sky. These predatory birds understand that these studio-setup perches are a place where the small birds will definitely go so they just keep an eye for them. They track these small birds and kill them when the time is right. So, by promoting such perches, these small birds are actually made to diminish in numbers. Sadly, such perches are usually set up in the open so that it is easy for photographers to click the birds, exposing the birds to open skies above.
The water kept also is not changed regularly. The birds in the wild usually take their sips from natural water sources like streams or water springs. The water in the natural sources remains fresh as it keeps flowing. The stagnant water also becomes a cause of diseases at times.
(Mistle Thrush – had this been photographed in a studio set up with a hide and perches, there would have been many telltale signs. This one was clicked on a wild tree just outside a woodland)
Apart from the ethical aspect, there are telltale signs of a ‘studio set-up’ bird photograph. Many of these are so obvious to a trained eye that they spoil the beauty of the photograph. I recently saw a beautiful photograph of a colorful bird on a perch. The problem? The main trunk was an oak tree and the branch was of a pine. A tell-tale sign that spoilt the image for me. The photographer had done a wonderful job with the photograph but the branch spoiled the image.
Another such photograph that I recently saw had a handful of moss loosely hanging from a branch, the perch where the bird was sitting. The trouble is that anyone who has seen moss growing naturally will never be able to enjoy that photograph. (It was as if onions were hung from an apple tree in the hope that people will accept that onions grow in that manner.) Yet another excellent photograph spoiled by a simple thing!
Tell-tale signs such as the ‘feeding’ pit on top of a perch, where the bird sits on one side with the feed, in its beak, are also easily noticed, even if the pit itself is not visible. The perch is also easily identified as being natural or something set up by humans to mimic nature. I am new to bird photography, but to me, studio type of bird-photography is a strict no-go zone.
Nowadays, it is the era of social media. Just a couple of days back, I saw photographs of a beautiful green bird on a perch that got shared on Instagram. Another photographer also shared almost similar photos (but not the same files). It was not plagiarism. Those two photographers just happened to be in the same hide for the same studio set up and photographed the same bird, like many others. They obviously posted the pics using similar tags.
(A turtle dove on an apple tree. These are quite docile birds and yet even these can get scared and fly away if you approach them too close.)
Photographing Nesting Birds or Young-ones in Nests
After some time, photographing just birds sitting on branches becomes quite monotonous. Bird-photographers tend to seek out interesting activities. Birds fighting, foraging for food, carrying stuff to build their nest, and sometimes even when they are nesting. Birds indulging in some kind of activity make up for a good photograph. However, photographing when they are nesting is totally unethical and a strict no.
The photography disturbs them in their nesting. This is harmful. I have heard about birds leaving their unhatched eggs and flying away never to return.
Another interesting observation, which was also substantiated by that friend of mine with whom, I had a long phone discussion today. Predatory birds learn by observing photographers carrying long lenses. They keep circling high-up in the sky and keep observing how the photographers move. When the photographers stop for a long time at a single spot, there is something interesting in the foliage there for the predatory birds. Maybe a yummy meal, young birds, unhatched eggs, easy to prey on nesting bird! The photographers in their enthusiasm end up doing harm.
(Just imagine, if these predators are smart enough to follow bird-photographers, what kind of easy catch it is for them when the birds come to the studio set-ups discussed above.)
Even if you happen to spot and photograph a nesting bird or even young ones in a nest, don’t hang around the spot for a long time. Don’t share the information with anyone else and remove the location information from the digital file as well. This will prevent other photographers from reaching that same place.
In a nutshell, photographing nesting birds or their young ones in nests is totally uncool and undoubtedly unethical.
(Green-backed Tit – photographed using an inexpensive tele lens at very high ISO. The image is noisy but not a problem. I hate using speedlights or flashes for any wildlife.)
Using Bird-Calls or Sounds
Many bird photographers create sounds to mimic bird calls. Some of them know how to whistle well. Some others can even fool an ornithologist with the bird calls. Guess what? These bird-calls actually fool the birds too. So much so, that they sometimes leave their own job and get distracted. They are known to leave their nests to look for the call giver. Sometimes, the birds even forget to take care of or feed their young ones. They get agitated too. Bird-calls can also interfere in their mating and breeding.
Using recorded bird sounds from a phone or voice recorder is even more distracting. After all these recordings are actually from birds.
Depending on the species, some bird calls may even scare the other ones. The birds lose up a lot of precious energy from their bodies when they are scared.
(Red-vented Bulbul, Himalayan variety.)
Be careful and enjoy bird-photography.
There’s nothing like walking down on a forest trail and spotting a bird in its natural habitat. Free, not scared, and going about its own work. Just enjoy the moment. If it makes a good photograph, go ahead and click. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. There will be many more opportunities in the future.
Learn to enjoy the walk, immerse yourself in the music of bird-calls, listen to the sounds of nature, observe the birds flutter by when you stand still, let the breeze caress you. Bird-photography is an experience and not just walking back home with photographs.
(If you live in a city, go ahead and keep some water and feed for the poor birds. They will thank you for this. Just make sure it is clean. Enjoy photographing them.)
Be a responsible photographer. Be ethical. Learn to love nature and enjoy birding. Become a birder first and a bird-photographer later on.